SmokeLong Quarterly

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Agnes in the Exam Room

Story by Ruth LeFaive (Read author interview) August 18, 2021

Photograph by Julian Hochgesang

Ever since her marriage began to corrode, Agnes Stevenson has been preoccupied with my sex life. Her attempt at bonding, I guess. She’s one of those people who confuses work with friendship—loneliness clear as the big E on the vision chart. Whenever I fit a guy with expensive glasses, she gives me a Get it! look, says I’ll meet my husband here. Typical of the miserably wedded to push the institution, to assume I want a partner, to imagine I’d choose a man.

So what if I only use my signature move on male patients? I need every commission I can get. The easiest way to upsell is this: Lift pricey frames slightly from a guy’s nose, brush the spot where the glasses rest at his ear and murmur, How does it feel here? This skin is rarely touched. Their cells remember the warmth of childhood baths, even if they’ve forgotten. Sale guaranteed, every time. Women require a different approach. Most faces lack symmetry, but an authoritative compliment about one’s forehead-to-chin ratio flatters just enough. Gender-nonconforming clients are the best. No pretense needed. All these nuances are lost on Agnes.

The week she filed for divorce, she let her husband come in for one last family discount. He brought their kids who made a mess of the waiting area. I held his glasses while he tried on a pair of oval frames. From his prescription, I knew his family on the other side of the room appeared to him as vague oblongs, beige and blue, the large one shushing the wriggly, small ones. His face slackened as if the blur was a relief. I left his ear alone.

Today I found Agnes in the exam room, lights out, crying. Before I could pretend I hadn’t seen her, she said, Did I try hard enough?

I wanted to tell her I should get back to the front, but in the half-light, distress gave her jawline a mesmerizing balance. She held the doctor’s small plastic paddle over one eye, then the other, and sobbed, saying, Nothing I do helps.

Nothing anyone could do would help, I imagined. She tried to catch her breath in a way I couldn’t ignore. I sat next to her so we both faced the vision chart. After a moment, I shined the doctor’s light at the letters and said, What’s the smallest row you can see?


This micro was a finalist in the 2021 SmokeLong Grand Micro Contest. 

About the Author

Ruth LeFaive’s stories and interviews appear in The Best Small Fictions 2018, Little Fiction, Longreads, Split Lip Magazine, The Offing, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work was recently selected as a winner in the 2020 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest and placed 2nd in the Fractured Lit Micro Fiction Prize. She lives in Los Angeles where she is working on a collection of short stories.

About the Artist

Julian Hochgesang is a photographer from Bavaria, Germany.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-Two of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Two

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